The Theory of the Five Elements as Applied to Color Selections in the Forbidden City during the Ming and Qing Dynasties

PureInsight | July 22, 2002

On the surface, things in the world appear to be so complex and disorderly that it seems as if they follow their own courses. However, they actually are interrelated with one another and are arranged very orderly by a law. Ancient Chinese people discovered a law that determines the interrelationships and invisible order of all things in the world. This law is known as the theory of the Five Elements. The Five Elements are Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. These elements constitute all things on earth. But the theory of the Five Elements goes far beyond this. With the theory of the Five Elements ancient Chinese people were able to explain the corresponding relationships between heaven, earth and humans. For instance, the Five Elements have their correspondences in directions and the seasons [representing some aspects of heaven.] They have their correspondences in man’s internal organs and sensory organs. The Five Elements even have their correspondences with emotions, colors, and the sense of taste. The essence of the Five Element theory is the argument that everything mutually generates and inhibits one another. From this, an understand behind the arrangement of things such as growth, death and the four seasons comes about. The theory also takes man to be an integral part of nature. Therefore, it makes no sense to observe man without observing the natural surroundings and vice versa. All creations in heaven and on earth follow a certain order. We, as people, should not and cannot surpass the unity of heaven, earth and man, or the natural laws of mutual promotion and restraint.

Most ancient Chinese people honored the laws of heaven and earth. Therefore, when they designed buildings, especially large architectural complexes such as an imperial palace, they generally based them on the theory of the Five Elements. The Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, is a clear example of architectural applications of the theory of the Five Elements.

The Five Elements, Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth, have correspondences in the colors, seasons, and directions. The element of Wood corresponds to the direction of east, the season of spring, and the color green. It is associated with growth and awakening; therefore, it promotes moderate growth, or rise, similar to when the sun rises in the east. The element of Fire corresponds to the direction south, the season of summer, and the color red. It is associated with a soaring blaze, and prosperity, similar to when the sun is in the middle of the sky at noon. The element of Metal corresponds to the direction of west, the season of fall, and the color white. It is associated with coolness and desolation, similar to when the sun sets in the west. The element of Water corresponds to the direction of north, the season of winter, and the color black. It is associated with chill traveling downward, cold weather, the frozen earth, and long nights in the north. The element of Earth corresponds to the direction of center, the mid-summer and the color yellow. It is associated with fertility and a moderate degree of maturity. The ancient Chinese would use only the colors of green, yellow, and red for the imperial palaces for their respective correspondences to growth, prosperity and fertility.

Green is associated with vitality and growth. Therefore, green glazed tiles covered the roofs of the eastern palaces in the Forbidden City when the Ming Dynasty was first established. It wasn’t until the period of Jiajing (1522-1566 A.D.) in the Ming Dynasty that the yellow glazed tiles replaced the green ones. They wished to display the honorable status of imperial reign extending to all directions with the color yellow, for it connotes supreme status and power. The color green is appropriate for vigorous and growing teenagers because it is associated with the element of Wood and therefore, the season of spring. Thus, the palace for the crown prince was referred to as the “Eastern Palace,” and it had green glazed tiles on the roof. The color red is associated with prosperity and connotes “just and upright.” Therefore, the walls of the Forbidden City and the columns in the palaces were painted with the color red, which corresponds to Fire. On the other hand, the Imperial Library of Wenyuan Ge, with its many valuable collections of books, had black tiles on the roof, and black walls instead of red walls. The color black corresponds to Water, which corresponds to the season of winter, a season of preservation and storage. In addition, the Tianyimen Gate of the Imperial Garden, located at the north end of the central axis of the Forbidden City, corresponds to the element of Water because of its location. Therefore, its walls were painted with the color black to be in harmony with the natural direction and color. Another reason for the black walls of the Tianyimen Gate may be that water subdues fire.

The color yellow corresponds to the element of Earth and the direction of center. The direction of center symbolizes supreme power for one overlooks all directions from the center. Therefore, the color of yellow was reserved exclusively for emperors. The roofs of emperor’s palaces were covered with yellow glazed tiles. The palaces were mostly painted with yellow, or decorated with foil made of real gold.

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